By Rafael Bernal
House progressives are flexing their muscles after a midterm election that put Democrats in power and is expected to trigger a series of battles within the caucus between the left and center over what issues to prioritize going forward.
“We have 20 new people that we endorsed elected to Congress, and there’s still a few more that are coming,” Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), the co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC), said Monday at a press conference presenting the group’s new members.
Pocan added that the CPC will have more than 90 members in the next Congress, making it the “largest value-based caucus” on the Hill.
Pocan made the remarks from the AFL-CIO’s headquarters in Washington a day before most lawmakers are set to return to Washington.
He was backed by more than a dozen incoming lawmakers in the next freshman class, including Rep.-elects Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), the first Somali-American elected to Congress.
The show of force is targeted as much at moderate Democrats and party leadership as it is at President Trump and his Republican allies.
One of the biggest challenges for the new Democratic caucus will be balancing the demands of liberals and centrists in the conference. While the new class includes a number of new liberals, it also includes more moderate Democrats elected in districts that Republicans will seek to win back in 2020.
Ocasio-Cortez, Pressley and Omar are not in districts considered competitive, like many of the progressive lawmakers at Monday’s event.
One point of friction could be immigration.
Progressives believe their uncompromising stance on immigration is the path forward for Democrats.
“We are in the process of putting together a comprehensive immigration reform platform that I think every Democrat should be embracing,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), vice chair of the caucus.
But that could put them at odds with some moderates, who see the party’s Midwest Senate losses as a sign of the effectiveness of Trump’s rhetoric in the closing weeks of the campaign. Trump repeatedly turned to the caravan of migrants traversing Mexico toward the U.S. border in the final days of the campaign, presenting it as a security threat.
Jayapal said the Trump gambit may have helped the GOP in some races, but she argued it hurt Republicans in other places.
She pointed toward the diversity and size of the CPC’s incoming class to bolster her point.
“It’s time to stop the national obsession with border security,” said Rep.-elect Veronica Escobar (D-Texas), who will replace Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D) as El Paso’s representative.
“The border is secure, and it’s time for us to move on to comprehensive immigration reform,” added Escobar, a former El Paso County judge.
A study by New American Economy, a nonpartisan immigration advocacy group, showed that new Hispanic and Asian voters played a central role in flipping districts that ultimately won the House for Democrats.
The study showed that in a majority of those districts, Republicans ran ads with strident immigration rhetoric.
Rep.-elect Jesús “Chuy” García (D-Ill.), who won election to the district long represented by immigration advocate Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D), was bullish on the party’s prospects on the issue.
“If the Republican Party wants to become extinct, they will follow the line and the leadership of President Trump,” he said.
Jayapal argued that progressives brought out new voters with their messages.
“People turned out in record numbers because they want a full agenda,” she said.
She mentioned income inequality, affordable health care and education, and inclusiveness as other winning issues for the left.
Initial numbers support Jayapal’s claims, at least in parts of the country where progressive candidates outperformed their expectations.
In the Rio Grande Valley, one of the most Hispanic-heavy and low-voting regions in the country, several counties more than doubled their voter participation numbers from the previous midterms in 2014.
Although O’Rourke ultimately lost his Senate race to incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), he provided proof that young Democrats running on a progressive message can get previously inactive constituencies to the polls.
One area where the progressives are now showing an interest in change, at least publicly, is in who should lead the House Democratic caucus.
Asked for a show of hands on who would commit to opposing Democratic Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) in her bid for the Speakership, none of the dozen incoming CPC members present raised their hand.
At the same time, Jayapal said the group is concerned about what the entire leadership team looks like.